POLAR WASTES: Last week, without fanfare or protest, Whatcom County Council gaveled in the five new county voting districts approved by voters last November. As the Gristle predicted, they did not tamper in any way with the district and precinct language or map outlines unanimously approved in April by the appointed Redistricting Committee; and despite stentorian oaths and enraged threats of legal action from the political Right, no one challenged the outcome. Our next prediction is: Voters will like these new districts.
The new districts preserve and empower distinct communities of interest. Every city can field a representative on County Council. The Farmland district will have a representative of farmlands on Council. And most districts themselves are ideologically, politically competitive, promising a dynamic range of opinion on future Councils.
In approving the districting plan, two—perhaps as many as four—currently seated Council members probably doomed their chances for future reelection, being in same districts or transitioned over time out of friendly districts, an act of self-sacrifice for better representation in county government. Their opening seats will undoubtedly produce a great deal of interest and competition in coming county elections.
Frankly, the new districts offer a refreshing counterbalance to a tide moving strongly the other way—the erosion of districts that were formerly competitive and their decay into tribal strongholds as the urban/rural divide widens and becomes calcified. It’s simple math that it is easier and more practical to move the outlines of compact urban voting precincts one block than to move the outlines of tenuous rural precincts one mile to accommodate changes in population. But the effect has been to carve off more and more of the once dynamic and competitive 42nd Legislative District represented by Bellingham and cast those precincts south into the already quite liberal 40th LD. The result is that both districts become more polarized; but the result also locks up a lot of urban votes in tiny precincts into supermajorities where the copiousness of those votes are wasted. Outcomes in the 40th District are settled by huge 25-plus point margins (where there is a challenger at all in the general election); outcomes are closer in the 42nd District, but growing less competitive with each redistricting cycle.
Republicans don’t have a snowflake’s chance of being elected in the 40th LD (honestly, they’ve stopped trying); and Democrats in the 42nd (who once held a respectable pedigree in the state Legislature) have become an analogously endangered species. Yet in elections with a turnout above 70,000 (such as those typical of a presidential election year) Whatcom County simply begins to run out of rightwingers, a reflection of the true ideological shape of a county unpartitioned by districting lines.
A recent organizing missive sent out by “Whatcom County Citizens for Freedom”—the current quicksilver chameleonism of the tea party—promises to “draw a thick red line around the county.” Well, if a significant chunk of county voters weren’t being thrown south to commingle with the San Juans, that line would be a lot less red than the tea party fancies. Their proposal to quarantine against progressive thought is predicated on an evolution that has already siphoned off and bottled up progressive voices.
None of this widening and calcification of political divides bodes well for healthy elections or representative democracy, particularly when candidates make the calculation they can simply stiff-arm hundreds of voters by not showing up at forums, refusing interviews or questionnaires, or glossing their statements because they’re confident the letter after their name serves as sufficient signifier and wayfinder to get them elected by their tribe. And yet the county is much more dynamic as a political entity than these tactics of exclusion would suggest.
We see all these forces unfolding in a quiet August primary in the 42nd, where candidates who disagree with the Republican template of obstruction and paralysis in Olympia but who nevertheless understand a Democrat hasn’t a hoot-in-hell’s chance of winning are running under the independent banner. And their efforts are being rebuffed and ignored by the “top two” party apparatchiks who have performed the calculus they’ll survive into the “top two” in November.
Independent Doug Karlberg and Libertarian Jacob Lamont held a rousing debate in Ferndale last week. The event was moderated by Mark Nelson, who represented Republicans on the Redistricting Committee last spring and serves as an organizer for that party. Nelson guided the debate with a firm hand that nevertheless allowed candidates considerable time to explore their ideas and issues. Candidates running under the R and D banners declined to attend. It was the only 42nd District debate scheduled prior to the Aug. 2 primary; and one of the best exchanges we’ve ever heard. Both debators agreed parties are part of the problem.
Lamont is owner of Evergreen Cannabis in Blaine. Karlberg has worked as a commercial fisherman, and been an activist on Port of Bellingham issues, running unsuccessfully for a seat on the commission in 2013. Both are feisty promoters of collaborative approaches to public policy and excessive partisanship; and Nelson is similarly gruff and feisty, moderating a lively open discussion.
“I don’t want to work for special interests. I don’t want to work for either political party,” Karlberg said in opening remarks. “I want to work for the 138,000 people that live in the 42nd District.”
“Citizens don’t have a voice,” Lamont agreed, “Unless you’re a special interest with some money, something to offer on the table, you’re not heard.”
“As soon as you sign up with a party, you have allegiance with the party instead of the people,” Karlberg explained. “The parties hand you a sheet of paper—they call them talking points, platforms—but they want you to sign on and agree with everything that’s on there. So what happens when you get the two sheets of paper from the two parties and you agree with some things on one sheet and other things on the other sheet?
“I think in the 42nd District there is room to be an independent,” he said. “The people are ready, there’s dissatisfaction with parties. I don’t owe either party anything and I can devote that to listening to citizens.”
It’s not at all easy for independents to gain a foothold in Olympia, with enforced rules about who may caucus with House members, and committee assignments jealously guarded and handed out as rewards for loyalty and party unity, but the value of independence, of being willing to reach across divides, becomes ever more meaningful in a deepening political rift reinforced through hardening boundaries.
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